Hey, remember Bain Capital? Two words many of us haven’t thought of in a while. But rest assured, you’ll be hearing them a lot this fall as the Obama campaign deals with one of its biggest problems—the fact that Mitt Romney polls better than the president on economics.
Look at these numbers from TPM. In Florida and Ohio, Obama maintains narrow, margin-of-error leads, but Romney is seen as better on the economy. Likewise in a mid-April Washington Post poll that had Obama leading by 9 points nationally, voters trusted Romney on the economy by 47 to 43 percent.
That, I think, is the one poll number, or set of poll numbers, that the Obama campaign ought to be brooding over the most. Most people don’t like Romney more than Obama. Obama has a big advantage on foreign policy (53 to 36, from that same WaPo survey; all categories here). He also wins stronger leader, social issues, taxes, health care, and all kinds of other categories that will make right-wingers wonder what planet Americans live on (answer: Earth!). But Romney wins economy and energy policy.
When the other guy leads in a category, a campaign has two alternatives. The first is to change the subject to a friendlier category. But the economy is a pretty big subject. Kind of hard to run a presidential campaign without talking about it. But the second path is more promising.
That, of course, is to find a way to erase the advantage. The quickest and sure-firest way for the Obama team to do that is to reintroduce the Bain Capital story. But they can’t do it like Newt Gingrich did in that “King of Bain” video, which was insanely over the top. As I said at the time, the argument is not “Mitt Romney was a job destroyer.” Because sometimes Mitt Romney was a job creator. That’s an unwinnable argument. The winnable argument is that Mitt Romney worked for the 1 percent. Sometimes it helped workers, but other times it hurt them; but nearly every time, the wealthy investors, and Romney himself, came out all right. That’s the story to tell. And any story that paints a darker picture of Bain than is fair will be pounced on and ripped to shreds.
More broadly on the economic front, I think things look like this. It now seems apparent that we aren’t going to have a string of 200,000-plus jobs months, which means in turns that the unemployment rate is probably not going to drop below the 7.9 percent it was when Obama took office. Now what seems more likely is a string of months where the number stays ahead of population growth, in the 130,000 to 150,000 range, but is no great shakes and doesn’t bring down the jobless rate (or increase the labor-force-participation rate).
So now the political question is, where is what we might call the jobs numbers Gladwell Point? At 200K per month, the Obama people thought back in January and February (and I thought this too) that they were going to be able to ride several strong job-growth months to relatively easy reelection. Anything under 100,000, which is the number needed to keep up with population growth, tips things in Romney’s favor. I’d put the Gladwell Point at about 140,000—below it, slight Romney edge; above it, slight Obama edge.
And since 140,000 may be about what we get—the March numbers were revised up last Friday to 152,000—that won’t be good enough to change the who’s-better-on-the-economy numbers. Ergo, enter Bain, sometime around Labor Day, probably. It's going to be a big part of Obama's campaign, and who wins the Bain argument will tell us something about what Americans think about class. Not what the chattering class thinks about class. We already know that. They like being the chattering class. I mean what Americans think.